Many years ago, in the early ’70s when I was teaching at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, one of my students—I think it was the Rev. Ralph Abernathy’s daughter, Juandalynn—brought to my attention the remarkable vocalist Mattiwilda Dobbs. In my general survey of musical genres I had heard of her but to have a student expand my interest and knowledge was revelatory. (By the way Juandalynn, who was in my jazz class, is now a renowned soprano with an impressive multilateral repertoire of classical music.)
Ms. Dobbs, I soon learned, was born in Atlanta on July 11, 1925. She was the fifth of six daughters born to Irene Ophelia Thompson and John Wesley Dobbs, both of whom were community leaders in the prestigious Auburn Avenue neighborhood where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born and raised. Mattiwilda and her sisters all took piano lessons and sang in the church choir. She continued her study of music at Spelman College, concentrating on vocal studies. Though she had a shaky beginning, her confidence gradually improved, so much so that her father convinced her to go to New York and expand her pursuit of vocal perfection. Soon she was under the tutorship of Lotte Leonard and the recipient of the Marian Anderson Award and other scholarships. When she was awarded a John Hay Whitney Fellowship she had the means to study in Europe.
Almost from the beginning of her operatic career her teachers and conductors recognized the beauty of her voice, the exceptional agility and the fascinating tonal aspects. In 1951, after winning the International Music Competition in Geneva, Switzerland, she was invited to perform in various festivals and opera houses throughout Europe, including La Scala in 1953, the first Black American to do so.
Another significant breakthrough occurred in 1956 when she made her debut with the Metropolitan Opera in her role as Gilda in Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” By one year she followed the great Marian Anderson as the second African American woman to sing at the Met and the first to be offered a long-term contract. Over her eight seasons at the Met, Mattiwilda sang in six roles and 29 performances.
Given her popularity and the limitations of residing in Atlanta, she made her home in Spain with her first husband, Luis Rodriquez, who died in 1954, 14 months after they were married. Three years later she married Bengt Janzon, a Swedish journalist. He died in 1997.
Coming of age in the South, she was very much aware of the rules of segregation and the strictures placed on Black life and activities, and marrying a white man was certainly a taboo she had to reckon with. Like many of her fellow performers with political conscience, she refused to sing before a segregated audience. In 1962, she finally had an opportunity to sing before a large integrated audience in Atlanta at the Municipal Auditorium. She was joined on stage and given a key to the city by Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. When her nephew, Maynard Jackson, was elected mayor of the city she sang at his inauguration in 1974. This performance opened the door to other dates in her hometown, including one in 1985 before the Atlanta Opera where Blanche Thebom was the director. Her association with prominence began when her father met with President Franklin Roosevelt. She recounted that meeting for HistoryMakers.
“I don’t know if you’re interested,” she began, “but when he [Janzon’s father, John Wesley Dobbs] was getting ready to be retired, he had already started his other job, which was working with the Black Masons of Georgia, and he was not head of them then, he was secretary or something, but they had a lot of businesses. They had property; they had an orphan home [Masonic Orphans Home, Americus, Georgia]; they had buildings, and it was a big organization. He already had started working with them, and so when he applied for his pension, the local people in the post office tried to stop it by saying that he had this other job, and they tried to say that he hadn’t had his full number of years and all that.
“And I remember he was very upset because they were trying to keep him from retiring at that age, after thirty years,” she continued. “And he and my mother [Irene Thompson Dobbs] were friends with the McDuffies who Mr. [Irvin] McDuffie was a personal valet of President Roosevelt, even from the time that Roosevelt was governor of New York. And President Roosevelt was an invalid, you know…he’d had polio, and so this valet was very close to him. He was the one who put him in bed at night, and…had been with him many years. So, my father told him about his troubles. He said, ‘I’ll speak to President Roosevelt.’ This was when Roosevelt was now president, and he did. And so President Roosevelt said my father could come to Washington [D.C.] and talk to him. And he—oh, by the way, Mrs. [Elizabeth] McDuffie was a maid there, but they were from Atlanta [Georgia] and they kept a house in Atlanta. They would come back [on] vacations; I got to know them. So my father went there and spoke to the president, and he saw that his claim was legitimate, and it was just prejudice and discrimination, people who hated him trying to keep him from getting his pension, so he said, ‘I’ll arrange for you to meet with the postmaster general,’ who was Farley, James Farley, then. And he went and spoke to him, and he did—he got his pension for him.”
Mattiwilda retired from the stage in 1974 and began teaching at the University of Texas, another first for an African American artist to the faculty. At the same time she was artist-in-residence at her alma mater, giving recitals and teaching master classes. In 1979, Spelman awarded her and Marian Anderson honorary doctorates.
Teaching and occasional recitals as well as serving on various boards, most significantly the Metropolitan Opera and National Endowment of the Arts Solo Recital Panel, occupied most of the august years of her life. She died on Dec. 8, 2015, at her home in Atlanta.